Death knell for Asgiriya

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq*
The fact that the third and final cricket Test between Sri Lanka and West Indies is going to be played at the newly built international cricket stadium in Kandy – Pallakele from December 1-5 sounded the death knell for Test cricket at the Asgiriya International Stadium which has been a popular venue for the past 17 years.
The writing was on the wall for this picturesque venue, the brainchild of former Sri Lanka Cricket Board President, Gamini Dissanayake when Sri Lanka Cricket took Pallakele under its wing three years ago. Pallakele has become one of five international cricket stadiums owned by Sri Lanka Cricket the others being R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, Galle, Dambulla and Hambantota.

The expansion of the Asgiriya cricket ground which was the property of Trinity College into an international cricket stadium was one of the requirements Sri Lanka had to fulfill to the ICC who granted them Test status on the guarantee that our infrastructure of cricket grounds would be improved.
Dissanayake being a former Trinitian had no difficulty in convincing the school authorities to release their ground to the Cricket Board for it to be converted into an international cricket stadium. Thus Trinity College became the first school perhaps in the world to own an international cricket stadium when their ground was uplifted and upgraded in just eight weeks. It was declared open on February 5, 1982 by the then President of Sri Lanka JR Jayawardene.
When one speaks of the Asgiriya Stadium one cannot forget the contribution made by former Ceylon cricketer Abu Fuard who undertook the challenging task to build the stadium notwithstanding the fact that he was putting his own health in danger.

In a recent interview with The Nation, Fuard recalled, “The operation was huge and I had to spend nearly five months building the stadium. There was no money in the Board I used to stay in the old pavilion with a sarong used as a sheet and slept the nights there. After about 2-3 months I fell ill and I met Dr Attygalle senior and he couldn’t diagnose the illness. I had evening fever by about 4-5 pm I felt feverish and had a temperature of around 100-101 and I was going down in weight. The doctor told me not to expose myself to dust.
“Due to my illness my kidneys packed up. My brother Ansar donated his kidney to me in 1997 but after five years that too packed up. I went to India for a second surgery in 2001 and it cost me a fortune. I lost my sight in both eyes because of the strong drugs that I have been using for the past six years. If I don’t take them I’ll be dead. I am not saying with pride but with a lot of happiness and satisfaction that my determined contribution was done in a pure honorary capacity. I was out of pocket most of the time. I did everything with pleasure and it gives you greater pleasure when you think of all that.”

England led by Keith Fletcher arrived in Sri Lanka in 1982 to play the country’s inaugural Test match and christened the Asgiriya Stadium by playing a 3-day warm-up match against a Sri Lanka Board President’s XI. To Ranjan Madugalle, a former Trinitian and later Royal College went the honour of scoring the maiden first-class hundred on the renovated Asgiriya International Stadium. He scored 142 not out. Another former Trinitian Ravi Ratnayeke had the honour of picking up the first five-wicket innings haul when he finished with figures of 5/120 off 29 overs. From the visitors’ side opener Geoff Cook scored a hundred for England. The match ended in a draw. ‘Wisden’ reported, ‘”the newly laid pitch played fairly true but was marred by a bumpy outfield.”
A year later Asgiriya hosted its first official Test match when Greg Chappell’s Australian team arrived to play a one-off Test. Sri Lanka for reasons best known to them included two leg-spinners in the team – DS de Silva, the present Sri Lanka Cricket interim committee chairman and Roshan Gunaratne, a young spinner. The Australian batsmen feasted on this luxury and helped themselves to a massive total of 514-4 declared with Kepler Wessels (141) and David Hookes (143 n.o.) helping themselves to big hundreds and Graham Yallop (98) and Chappell (66) to half-centuries Hookes distinguished himself by scoring a century between lunch and tea. The two leg-spinners went for 206 runs between them for a solitary wicket. Sri Lanka were pushed onto the back foot by Dennis Lillee who took two wickets in his opening over but recovered from the early setback to post a respectable 274 via fifties from captain Duleep Mendis (74) and Arjuna Ranatunga (90). Following-on their batting collapsed for 205 to the left-arm spin of Tom Hogan (5/66). Opener Sidath Wettimuny impressed with a compact 96.

The second Test played at Asgiriya in 1984 against New Zealand saw some ugly scenes at the venue when a section of spectators incensed by Sri Lanka’s poor batting in the second innings started pelting stones and objects at their dressing room and at the bus in which they were to travel back to Colombo. The team had to divert from their normal route and travel via Kurunegala to avoid any further confrontation with the angry public. Sri Lanka set 263 to win collapsed like a pack of cards for 97 in their second innings to lose the Test by 165 runs. The highlight of the match was the last wicket partnership of 60 between Vinothen John and debutant Jayantha Amarasinghe in Sri Lanka’s first innings and the bowling of New Zealand fast bowler Richard Hadlee who proved unplayable taking 8 for 43 in the match.

In 1985, Asgiriya was the venue for Sri Lanka’s maiden Test series victory when they drew the third Test of the series against Kapil Dev’s Indians to win by a 1-0 margin. Sri Lanka’s two elder statesmen in the side captain Duleep Mendis and his deputy Roy Dias staged an excellent fight back to draw the Test each hitting contrasting centuries. They put together a match saving partnership of 216 after Sri Lanka had lost their first three wickets for 34 chasing 377 for victory.

Further trouble continued to plague Asgiriya when Imran Khan’s Pakistan side played a Test in 1986. On a treacherous pitch affected by rain Sri Lanka was bundled out for scores of 109 and 101 in reply to Pakistan’s 230. The Test was notable for Sri Lanka batsmen Roy Dias and Arjuna Ranatunga stopping play and walking back to the pavilion complaining that they could not bat due to the abuse hurled at them by the Pakistani fielders. The incident was sparked off when a bat-pad catch offered by Ranatunga was turned down by the umpire. The match was completed after Imran apologised to the umpires.

Asgiriya had to wait a further six years before another Test was staged there, but it turned out to be a real dampener. It produced the shortest ever Test on record for only 12 overs and 49 minutes of play was possible on the second day. Sri Lanka put into bat by India scored 24-3. The irony of it was that the rest day was the sunniest but the Sri Lanka Cricket Board did not have provisions in the playing conditions to make use of it.
The next Test played at Asgiriya in 1994 proved to be a disaster from Sri Lanka’s point for they were shot out for their lowest Test total – 71 by the pace and swing of Pakistan’s famed fast bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis on a green top pitch. The pair bowled unchanged 28.2 overs in the first innings capturing all ten wickets between them and after Pakistan had scored 357-9 declared courtesy an exquisite century from Inzamam-ul-Haq, Waqar ran through the batting once again taking five more wickets for match figures of 11 for 119. Sri Lanka’s plight would have been worse at 78-6 had it not been for a face-saving seventh wicket partnership of 131 between Hashan Tillakaratne (83 n.o.) and Ruwan Kalpage (62), the present Sri Lanka fielding coach.

It was Fifteen years after playing their first Test at Asgiriya that Sri Lanka was able to achieve their first win at this venue. It came at the expense of Zimbabwe whom Sri Lanka beat by eight wickets. To opener Marvan Atapattu went the honour of scoring the first Test double century when he carved out 223 off 446 balls that set up the victory. Muthiah Muralitharan another product from Kandy did the rest as he bowled his team to a comprehensive victory with a match bag of 12 wickets.

Sri Lanka continued their winning vein when they defeated Steve Waugh’s Australians by six wickets in the first Test of the series played at Asgiriya in 1999. However an unfortunate incident on the field overshadowed Sri Lanka’s victory. Waugh and team mate Jason Gillespie collided with each other on the field, attempting to hold onto a catch offered by Mahela Jayawardene. The impact left Waugh with a broken nose and Gillespie with a broken leg. Both casualties were airlifted by helicopter to Colombo for further treatment.

In 2000, Asgiriya was accorded two Test matches against Pakistan and against South Africa. The one against Pakistan saw only one innings being played as Sri Lanka choosing to bat first piled up 467-5. Rain affected all five days of the Test with the exception of the second which saw a full day’s play. Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu made the most of the available time sharing an opening stand of 335 runs which is a record for Sri Lanka. Atapattu went onto make 207 not out and Jayasuriya was dismissed for 188.

Sri Lanka missed a golden opportunity of winning the three-Test series against South Africa when they lost a tense second Test by seven runs. A century by Lance Klusener propelled South Africa to 253 after being 34-5 at one stage. Sri Lanka gained a first innings lead of 55 thanks to Atapattu who had taken a fancy to the ground by compiling his third Test century with 120. After South Africa was bowled out for 231, Sri Lanka was left with a gettable score of 177 for victory. But Shaun Pollock and Nantie Hayward had other ideas. They picked out the two openers Atapattu and Jayasuriya for ducks and suddenly the target looked an imposing one as they lost Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara also cheaply to be 21-4. Russell Arnold (40) and skipper Arjuna Ranatunga (88) staged a recovery of some sorts taking the total to 130. The dismissal of Ranatunga at 161 left Sri Lanka needing 16 but the tail failed to deliver and they fell short by eight.

The year 2001 saw Asgiriya hosting three Test matches, but Sri Lanka won only one against West Indies and lost to England and India. The England match was full of drama and it was described by ‘Wisden’ as: “This was a bruising, bar-room brawl of a Test, the type that, pre-Fletcher, England would not have won. But with now-habitual steel, win it they did, squaring the series. In several respects, Kandy was a classic.” Apart from the cricket Michael Atherton and Kumar Sangakkara were issued severe reprimands, and Sanath Jayasuriya fined 60 percent of his match fee for dissent and a suspended ban of two Tests and two ODIs (for throwing his bat). Both umpires Rudi Koertzen and BC Cooray had dreadful matches, the irony of it being that most of the errors went in favour of the visitors. Home umpire Cooray was especially vilified with one local headline saying: “BC Bats for England”.

Sri Lanka let go another great opportunity to go 2-up in the series when they suffered an uncharacteristic batting collapse and threw away the advantage of a 42-run first innings lead to lose the Test to India by seven wickets. Only a 64-run partnership between Muralitharan who scored a career best 67 and Ruchira Perera, a Sri Lankan last-wicket record against India, raised the target to 264. India had more than two days to chase that down which they did successfully. Indian captain Sourav Ganguly led his team’s run chase with an unbeaten 98 after Rahul Dravid had done all the hard work with a fighting 75.

Despite the loss of 130 overs due to rain West Indies failed to save the Test and eventually lost by 131 runs. The match had a bizarre start when it’s fifth over was completed by three bowlers. Mervyn Dillon left the field after two balls of his third over not feeling well and Colin Stuart who was asked to finish the over sent down two unintentional head-high full tosses in three balls to Jayasuriya. Under the ICC regulations he had to be removed from bowling for the rest of the innings – the first instance of its kind. Chris Gayle then bowled the last three balls to complete the over. West Indies batting succumbed to Muralitharan who took ten wickets.
Muralitharan came agonizingly close to equalling England off-spinner Jim Laker’s world record of all ten wickets in a Test innings when he captured nine for 51 off 40 overs in the Zimbabwe first innings. Had it not been for a missed regulation bat-pad catch by Russel Arnold, he would have equaled the record for soon afterwards Chaminda Vaas picked up the last wicket. Sri Lanka won the match with ease by an innings.
Sri Lanka played out a stalemate against New Zealand in 2003, but later that year they were deprived of victory by Michael Vaughan who played a captain’s knock of 105 to save England from defeat. The match was somewhat marred by Nasser Hussain allegedly calling Muralitharan an ‘effing chucker’ which soured relations between the teams.

Sri Lanka missed another opportunity of squaring a Test series at Asgiriya when they lost a thrilling Test to Australia in 2004. Muralitharan completed 500 Test wickets in front of his home fans, but Sri Lanka spearheaded by Jayasuriya’s aggressive century came desperately closed to pulling off a series leveling win. They started the final day at 301-7 needing a further 51 but fell short by 27.
Two Kandy cricketers played the stellar role in Sri Lanka’s 240-run win over West Indies in 2005. Kumar Sangakkara hit an unbeaten 157, his first century at the Asgiriya Stadium, the ground of his old school Trinity College and Muralitharan, another local boy ran through the batting taking ten wickets in the match which included eight in the second innings.

Sri Lanka ran into the extremely talented young fast bowler Mohammad Asif who swept them aside with a bowling spell that brought him figures of 11 for 71 and gave Pakistan a comfortable eight wickets win in 2006. Apart from Asif’s magnificent bowling there was a spat between the late Bob Woolmer and Sri Lanka’s chief curator Anuruddha Polonowita who accused the Pakistan coach of interfering with pitch preparations when he inserted a thin metal spike into the side of the pitch to test the moisture underneath. The surface attracted widespread debate as wickets tumbled and the match was over in three days.

In a hopelessly one-sided contest in 2007 Sri Lanka thrashed Bangladesh by an innings and 193 runs with Muralitharan proving to be the main wrecker once again. He started the match needing 12 wickets for 700 in Test cricket and with perfect timing reached the landmark with the last ball of the series, in his home town. He finished with 12 for 82 and joined Shane Warne as the only other bowler to reach that mark. Sri Lanka’s two senior batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene made mincemeat of the hapless Bangladesh bowling putting together a massive stand of 311. Jayawardene was out for 165 but Sangakkara remained unconquered on 222.

It was another Kandy men show when Sangakkara and Muralitharan combined to inflict an 88-run defeat on England in 2007, the last Test to be played at Asgiriya. Muralitharan went past Warne’s world record of 708 Test wickets and Sangakara kept Sri Lanka in front with two exceptional innings of 92 and 152.
Asgiriya has also been the venue for six ODIs played between 1986 and 2001.
Over the years Asgiriya has provided wonderful and bitter sweet memories for everyone who had the privilege of witnessing the international matches played there. It is a sad occasion that it would no longer figure amongst the international venues in the future.

*The writer has covered all 21 Tests played at Asgiriya.